An advocate of free-flowing rivers, count me among those who think we have far too many dams choking our rivers, even our brooks, thousands of them just in Connecticut.
Having said that, I slipped my kayak into West Thompson Lake in Thompson on a recent sunny, warm day. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built and manages a dam that created this “lake,” oversees the impoundment and surrounding land, including a boat launch, picnic areas, a campground and recreation facilities, 1,970 acres in all.
A public boat launch is just north of the dam, on the east shore. I paddled away from the dam and headed north. It was fairly early on a weekday morning – I launched at 8:30 – and in the first two hours on the water I came upon one boat with an electric motor and two fishermen in it, and one other kayaker off in the distance. The lake was quiet, hardly a ripple on the water, quite pleasant.
West Thompson Lake impounds a section of the Quinebaug River in the northeastern corner of Connecticut. It was created in the 1960s to protect downstream communities, notably Putnam, after devastating urban flooding in the 1950s.
One reason we have urban flooding is that typically and for centuries we built structures right up against river banks, ignoring the fact that sometimes rivers overflow their banks. The flooding solution in recent decades is to build flood-control dams like the one on the Quinebaug, even if the dams themselves are a mistake, at least from a healthy ecosystem perspective.
The dam backs up the Quinebaug for more than a mile, producing a 239-acre body of water. As lakes go in Connecticut, a state with lakes that are mostly modest in size, it is about average. What sets it apart from most other lakes and ponds in the state is that the shoreline is either woods or fields, not a cottage or home to be seen.
Indeed, get away from the dam, which, of course, is hugely unnatural in appearance, and you might think you were on a remote pond somewhere.
But keep in mind, any riverside structures in the former village of West Thompson were taken by eminent domain and the land inundated to create the dam and lake.
Birds were abundant as I paddled. Among the species I spotted on the water or in the woods were Canada geese, mallards, great blue herons, a green heron, eastern kingbirds, red-tailed hawk, yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, kingfisher, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, catbird, blue jay and robin.
Along the shore I came upon several colonies of blue flag, a very showy wildflower with big blue petals that flourishes in wet habitat.
At the north end of the lake is its source, the Quinebaug. I paddled upriver easily a mile, the river becoming narrower as I left the lake behind. Where the river makes a series of turns with shallow, quick water that made progress difficult, I turned around and worked my way back down the river.
On the west bank a sign warned that “water quality does not meet safe health standards. No swimming or wading.” Sad to see. Connecticut was among the first states to get serious about cleaning up its rivers, passing major legislation 50 years ago last year. The federal Clean Water Act followed more than 45 years ago. Rivers are cleaner to be sure, but the job never got finished. The days of truly gross water pollution with untreated industrial and sewage discharges are over, but many miles of streams in Connecticut and the rest of the U. S. still have serious pollution problems, as the sign attests.
I continued along the west shore of the lake to the dam, crossed to the east shore, then paddled back north to the boat launch.
A kayaker pushed off as I approached the launching area, fishing rod aboard. Another kayaker prepared to launch.
A pleasant morning on an artificial lake. Conflicted? Perhaps.